Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Photo Tips: Wildlife Photography



I'm not an expert photographer but I've had a bit of experience with wildlife photography in Australia, North America, Southern Africa and Europe now so I thought I'd go through my equipment for this trip, how I shoot & process and add as many tips along the way as I can.  While I'll try and keep it fairly general I'll probably be focusing on our African Safaris.

Equipment

Hippos fighting in the Chobe River: 329mm @ 1/1600
I did a blog post on my photo gear for this trip early on so I won't go into a lot of details here but this trip I'm shooting wildlife with a Canon 7D Mark II and a Tamron 150-600.  It's not a perfect combo and it has its weaknesses but for the price, reach, flexibility and compactness it is a fantastic kit.  The camera has an excellent focus system, reasonably good low light performances, a crop factor (as you always need a bit of extra reach), high frame rate, excellent buffer and good weather sealing.  The lens has 600mm in a zoom that doesn't take up an entire photo back-pack, and also has reasonable focus speed and good stabilisation.  I also us a tripod at times wrote a little on the usefulness of a tripod for wildlife photography in a Yosemite photography post.

In the past I have done a lot of wildlife photogarphy with the Canon 7D Mark I and a Canon 100-400 L which is also a great combination but I really wanted more reach (and a camera upgrade), plus the stabilisation is better in the Tamron.

There were a few times this trip where 150mm on a crop sensor was too long to even get a portrait/head shot of an animal close to the car.  Times like these having 100mm or even 70mm would have been handy but I think I gained more shots by having the extra length that what I missed.

Settings

I have a custom setting on my camera that I can quickly switch to and have a reasonable set-up for shooting a wide variety wildlife, leaning a little towards moving wildlife because if is it sitting still you can change the settings later.
  • Mode: Manual (with auto ISO)
  • Shutter speed: 1/800
  • Aperture: f/8
  • ISO: Auto (100-6400)
  • Focus mode: Servo
  • Focus points: All (starting tracking on center point)
  • Drive: High speed continuous
  • AF on: With back of camera thumb button only
Tawny Eagle (I think): 600mm @ 1/2000
For moving subjects I usually bump up the shutter speed a little and if I have time I switch the IS off because my Tamron will try and stabilise out the panning movement and will tend to make it more blurry.  Some lenses have a stabilisation mode that will allow panning like the Canon 100-400 but not the Tamron 150-600.

The significance of the last dot point is that I can use servo AF as you would normally use One Shot AF so I can focus and recompose without needing to keep the shutter half pressed, plus you are also always ready for it to move.  In theory this is less accurate for stationary subjects than One Shot AF but I've found it to be good enough.


Coyote in Yosemite: 273mm @ 1/500 on a tripod
Shutter speed it a tricky one as you will need to come up with the best shutter speed for your subject and your ability.  I know I can't get consistently sharp images at 600mm when I'm standing at 1/800th but I can if I'm sitting down, even in a stationary vehicle.  For birds in flight I will up the shutter to at least 1/1250 (if I remember) or preferably more depending on the bird and focal length.  It must be said that all of these are based on the fact that I don't have great shutter technique, particularly when I'm excited about what I'm looking at.

Aperture at f/8 is just because the lens is sharper there and you need a bit of extra DOF when using a long lens.

The main downside of shooting in manual is that you can't use exposure compensation (on my camera at least) therefore I'll sometimes switch of aperture priority or shutter priority when I need it.

Technique

Using long lenses requires a lot of technique and practice to do it well because they are heavy and bulky and get blown in the wind quite a lot.

Shutter speed, needs to be where you need it for the particular situation you are in.  I mentioned it above in the settings and your practice will help you figure out your technique and what settings are possible for you.  Here's some info on improving your handholding technique.



Verreaux's Eagle-Owl + moon: Occasionally
you get lucky 329mm @ 1/80 (braced
against safari truck.)
Tripod/monopod/beanbag/rock/tree/fence post/railing/car/knee.  Keeping the camera as stable as possible is key so you can keep your shutter speed as low as possible and therefore your ISO as low as possible.  Use whatever you can to help brace your shot, I don't often use a tripod when shooting wildlife and have never used a proper gimble head but they do help significantly when you want/need to lower your shutter speed.  On this trip I used the tripod on a barge and in a boat at one point because we were already moving I wanted to help cut out the movement I add when hand holding.

Dust, it is the enemy of your camera equipment and my lens ended up with quite a bit of it inside and out after game drives.  So what can you do?  Firstly, bring an air blower so you don't have to use the lens cloth quite as much, obviously keep your lens cloth handy because you will need it quite a lot (and if you don't usually use a UV filter, this might be a good time to make an exception).  Be quick when changing lenses to keep it off your sensor but it might also be worth investing in a sensor cleaning system.  I survived without but I would have picked up a Sensor Gel cleaner if I'd had the chance.  Most cameras have an ultrasonic or electrostatic type of system to help get the dust off (and I've seen it work wonders) but you don't want to rely on it in a dusty environment.  One other thing I picked up reading Moose Peterson's safari blogs was to have a towel/cloth to cover you camera when not shooting.

Practice

African Fishing Eagle: 600mm @ 1/500 on a tripod on a drifting
barge.  Not extreme but slower than I can typically hand hold.
Do it.  Get familiar with your gear and do a few practice trips before you got out for your actual shoot.  To be perfectly honest I don't like reading the manual for my camera and having shot Canon gear for quite a few years, I don't often need to, but the first few shoots are usually when I need it the most.

Processing & Workflow

I use Adobe Lightroom to catalog and process all my photos, what I actually do varies greatly depending on the photograph but I use but the clarity slide along with the sharpness and noise reduction section are visited with almost every wildlife photo.  These are very helpful in bringing out the details like hair and feathers.

Bison in Yellowstone: 213mm @1/800
Sorting and keywording is also really important and when you are taking a lot of photos at least doing the basics ASAP helps a lot.  My process for sorting is to flag everything with one star if it is something I want to look at again and occasionally more if I really like it, using a reject flag if it is really bad and using the colour labels to signify if an image is HDR or part of a panorama (not so much for wildlife).  I'll then come back and increase star ratings where appropriate and give it a flag when I have finished processing it.



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